Mountain Fire Zone Defenses Get Boosts

Times Staff Writers

Supervisors in Riverside and San Bernardino counties scrambled on Tuesday to protect their mountain communities from fire and its aftermath.

As the San Bernardino County board dealt with the effects of recent blazes near Lake Arrowhead -- denuded hillsides prone to mudslides -- their colleagues to the south voted to take steps to protect Idyllwild from devastating wildfires.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to spend $2 million to protect homes from floods and mudslides that may strike foothill neighborhoods when winter storms dump rain on fire-ravaged mountains.

"It's going to be a busy winter," said Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whose district includes most of the mountain communities hardest hit by the recent wildfires.

The money will come from a $4-million insurance reserve set aside by the county for flood-control emergencies.

Some will be used to clear burned trees and shrubs that are in danger of washing into nearby flood-control channels and creeks in a heavy rain. Catch basins at the base of the mountains will be enlarged to hold debris, ash and water that could wash down.

Flood-control experts plan to install an additional 15 gauges throughout the area to better monitor precipitation. The county also plans to stockpile concrete road barriers, sandbags and other material that can help protect homes and roads from flooding.

"We are preparing for the worst," said county Public Works Director Ken Miller.

"If we get light rain, we will have light problems. If we have heavy rain, we will have heavy problems."

Meanwhile, officials in Riverside County sought to make sure their mountain communities don't suffer similar devastation.

Though the Idyllwild area is choked with trees killed by an infestation of the bark beetle, the area was unscathed in last month's fires, which killed 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes in San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 0 to order its staff to report back within two weeks about stepping up the removal of dead trees and improving evacuation plans.

The county staff must determine how quickly the county can access its share of the $20-million federal appropriation for dead-tree removal, how to get extra California Department of Forestry crews to clear trees, the feasibility and cost of creating a reverse 911 system that calls homes with emergency evacuation orders, what efforts would be required to close all highway access to mountain communities during "red-flag" fire conditions, and whether an emergency tree-removal ordinance is advisable.

"Bottom line: Our fire season is not over," Riverside County Supervisor Jim Venable wrote in a memo to his colleagues urging their support. "The small amount of rain that we have had has made no significant difference whatsoever in our horrendous fire threat. We cannot work too fast to address these critical issues."

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